Spring 2021 Introduction

Religious authority and technology are not new subjects of conversation and controversy. From a historical perspective, every era of globalization has been intimately intertwined with advances in, and reconfigurations of, various technologies. This is because technology is a part of human cultural activity and has an important role in God’s creation. That said, human motivations and intent are often misguided and misaligned with God’s purposes. We see early on in the biblical narrative, for example, two very different engineering projects that are undertaken: God instructs Noah to build the ark as a sign of judgment and a vehicle of salvation; in contrast, several chapters later humankind initiates its own technological project in building the tower of Babel, a symbol of pride and rebellion all in the pursuit of making a name for oneself.

Throughout history, the introduction of new forms of technology in society have had a significant impact on the very nature, development and identity of religious communities. The religious impact, for example, of the printing press is one of the most well-known. It transformed the dissemination of knowledge and ideas, bolstered social movements and facilitated the scientific revolution. Moreover, it fundamentally altered the nature of religious authority in Europe and in the majority world, where the translation of Scripture into vernacular (a hallmark of the modern missionary movement) paradoxically subverted many of Christendom’s assumptions and ideals.

Religious leaders, communities and institutions, Christian and non-Christian alike, throughout the West and the majority world, have demonstrated a variety of responses to technology ranging from early adoption and embrace to resistance and outright demonization. In the twentieth century, there has been a modest attempt among some scholars in the West—including Jacques Ellul, Lynn White, George Ovitt, and David Noble to name a few—to address the relationship between technology and religion. Their concerns included religion’s role in determining Western society’s posture toward the natural world, religion’s role in abetting technological development, religion’s role in shaping Western attitudes toward “labor and labor’s tools,” and, more recently, the use of religious language and categories to describe technology.

This issue of the journal contributes to this ongoing discussion by focusing on the changing nature of religious authority vis-à-vis digital and social media. Discussions concerning an article on this theme began with Pauline Cheong in the Fall of 2019. A few months later, Easter services and Ramadan prayers were quite literally quarantined as COVID-19 sent religious communities scrambling to reconfigure congregational life.

In her article, entitled, “A Holy Influence: Understanding Religious Authority in Hyperconnected Times”, Cheong notes that the pace of technological adoption and innovation seems to be outstripping the capacity to reflect upon the broader implications of digital hyperconnectivity. The pressure for religious leaders to adopt a larger suite of digital tools to advance virtual religious instruction and services has further mounted in a COVID-19 environment.

Using her own research on Big Data and artificial intelligence in religious collectivities, she discusses how our religious understandings of authority are shaped by our hopes and expectations about digital technologies. Can a virtually mediated cleric or online prophet exercise the same level of influence as if they were physically present in a congregation? Do digital media reproduce prevailing structures of authority, or do they mar and erode traditional authority? Towards this end, Cheong identifies areas of tensions and discord and addresses the concomitant opportunities and challenges of digital innovations for faith communities, including issues of power and social inequalities related to digital access and outreach.

In his response to Cheong, Benson Rajan suggests that due attention must be given to the core beliefs that have characterized religious authorities and their new media relations in recent times. Doing so would help shed light on debates regarding human leadership, personal well-being, and the use of technology in times of hyperconnectivity. Benson argues that Saint Anselm’s ontological arguments surrounding fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) serve as a critical starting point for investigating the manner in which religious authorities have re-branded themselves to boost their influence in a hybrid religious environment.

Dating to the shifts in religious authority during the sixteenth century Reformation, Charles Ess argues that contrary to early hopes and fears that new technologies would liberate and “democratize”, as Cheong’s essay makes clear, much of the actual development and deployment of these new technologies works in primarily more conservative directions. In addition, Ess highlights cultural factors that influence the embrace, interaction with, and development of, digital technologies. For example, he notes that the Japanese and animist traditions underlying Daoism, Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism presume a non-dualist understanding of life, consciousness and spirit as infusing the entire order of “things”. This stands in sharp contrast with modern Western dualisms inherited from Roman Christianities.

In a similar vein, Xenia Zieler examines Hindu gurus’ engagement with digital spaces and in doing so, provides examples from a religious tradition beyond the ones traditionally studied. As persons with self-ascribed authority, gurus increasingly reach large audiences and acquire followers in digital spaces through the display and creation of an image or brand of themselves as religious authority figures. Zieler’s analysis of a particular guru, Radhe Maa, illustrates a blend of both modern and a traditional Hinduism as well as the modes of self-construction that are negotiated in such digital spaces.

According to Bala Musa, Cheong’s reflections set the stage for a much-needed critical examination of the nature and implication of hyperconnectivity on religious authority and practice. “To what extent can new mediated agents perform and communicate religious authority and influence?” Using this question as his point of departure, he explores the ways in which religious authority, as mediated by digital realities, vacillates between supplication and supplantation.

In his reflections, Phil Towne outlines the challenge of online formation within the context of traditional ecclesial authority, describes issues related to censorship and authority and suggests the need to include assessments beyond religious institutions, namely, a broader cultural exploration of religion and spirituality. Towne asserts that while religious authority is certainly being challenged, it is simultaneously being freed from structural constraints in ways that mirror societal views of religion and spirituality. These shifts, which are often interpreted in terms of decline and decay, might be an opportunity for the church to embody a spirituality that permeates every aspect of life.

As a teacher of religious studies, Kirsteen Kim has observed the perpetual difficulty in distinguishing truth from falsehood in virtual reality. She asserts that, more than ever, theological educators owe it to students and congregations to equip them with critical academic tools as well as skills of spiritual discernment to help them navigate the complexities of an increasing religious plural landscape. Towards this end, Kim identifies three areas that are in need of critical engagement, namely, traditional and legal religious authority online, charismatic authority in virtual reality, and discernment in hyperconnectivity.

While acknowledging the important function religious leaders play, Paulo Oliveira contends that a missiological perspective might ask Cheong to expand the conversation in order to consider religious adherents as the primary locus of power and decision-making. In Oliveira’s view, religious followers are the ultimate arbiters and regulators of religious authority. He then draws from his research on the intersection of emerging adults, communication technologies, and Islam in the Arabian Peninsula to demonstrate how religious adherents select authoritative religious sources, ascribe meaning, and assign value to them.